ASR Institute of Women’s Studies, Lahore is not a run of the mill NGO or a donor-sponsored institution. Pakistan, not unlike other developing countries has enough of such makeshift, quick-fix research institutions that advance the Eurocentric and inappropriate agendas of those who want to liberate and enable the natives to come at par with the ‘civilized’ world. Since 1983, ASR has held its own – under dictatorships, quasi-democratic charades and amid the rise of Islamism. Not content with radical research and speaking the truth, in 1997 ASR went ahead and set up the first women’s studies institute in the non-state domain. This institute is open for South Asians and boasts a curriculum and faculty that would compete with any similar outfit in the international arena.
In February 2010, ASR organized a national seminar entitled A Celebration Of The Women’s Movement 1947-2010. The seminar honoured women who have struggled for women rights, and especially to pay tribute to the valiant struggle of the women of Pakistan who have consistently challenged all forms of oppression since 1947. This occasion also paid tribute to the women of Lahore and the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) who resisted the dictatorship of General Zia ul Haq on the 12th of February 1983. This historic day will always be remembered as a shining moment in our troubled history, when a few women faced large contingents of brutal police and marched their way through lathi charges and tear gas to protest against the anti-women, dubious ‘Islamization’ under Martial Law.
The sad part is that the process that was unleashed by the Ziaist mock-theocracy has turned into a national disaster. The rise of the Taliban and other Wahabi-Salafist groups are a danger not only to women and minorities, but also spell doom for the future of a plural Pakistani society. In this milieu, ASR’s bold stance and unwavering commitment to an equitable, progressive Pakistan is therefore heartwarming. At the same time, ASR is also facing existential crises that concern its basic survival.
As Zubeida Mustafa wrote in a daily newspaper recently, it is a shame that ASR is facing a research funding crunch, given that we have never needed research praxis as we need it now. Mustafa was emphatic: “But on the cards is the death of a centre that has educated 12,000 women in feminism and many more who have attended its short-term workshops. Lahore’s ASR [‘impact’, in Urdu] will run out of funds in October and its executive director, Nighat Said Khan says she will pack up if no one comes to bail the institution out.”
Our history, ethos and sociological structures are against institutions. We do not let them grow and if they do and challenge power, there is a concerted effort to decimate them. Our histories celebrate individuals, and even today in the twenty-first century we are obsessed with this political leader or that sportsman. This is a complex question and requires greater investigation.
ASR has managed and transmitted knowledge through moots and dialogues involving local and international teachers and academics. An impressive library with thousands of books, periodicals, newspaper clippings, reports and audio and video resources, on the women’s movement, land rights, citizenship issues, has also been set up over the years. Most importantly, ASR has filled the need for a publishing house that serves the requirements of critical thinking and writing, and has produced fifty-five publications, and there are many in the pipeline.
But the donors and local funding agents are not keen to support it. The reasons are also complex: Pakistan’s consultancy mafia and servile NGOs are better placed to articulate the ‘development discourse’. More importantly, Pakistan’s financially and intellectually bankrupt executive would also be happy with ASR’s demise. After all, who drives the executive – the middle classes fed on India-bashing, empty rhetoric of an Islamic fortress where women must be good cooks and invisible; and where patriarchy and oligarchies are good for the health of the nation.
ASR’s seminar was addressed by Samina Rehman (WAF, Lahore); Arfana Malla and Amar Sindhi (WAF Hyderabad); Nighat Said Khan and Dr. Uma Chakravorty (an eminent feminist activist from Delhi), who reiterated the need to link research with action, and concepts with activism. A poem composed by the late Shehla Zia, a leader of the women’s movement, was also read out. I recall Zia’s intense eyes and energetic hands when I re-read these lines:
In praise of the ASR Bhit Shah workshop
Morning tea and morning groans
Morning woes and morning moans
Najma treating us like drones
Threatening us in martial terms
Nasira, Ruby taking care
Of our food but not our prayer
Telling us we must prepare
For lectures long we had to bear
Bunny taking over then
Herding into the pen
Warning us against all men
Telling us the why and when
Kamla at us with the gong
Telling us we all belong
Defining for us right and wrong
Beguiling us with dance and song
Confessions first we had to make
It didn’t matter true or fake
Had to admit to some mistake
Silence vows we had to break
Then they gave us knowing smiles
And all night they made our files
This was also an occasion where women’s continued enslavement to poverty and lack of access to resources and public services was highlighted amid song and laughter. Despite the several achievements of the movement in recent years, violence against women has increased exponentially in both the private and public spheres. All local and imperial conflicts have targeted women, making them frontline victims across the world.
I have to agree with Mustafa that Pakistan simply cannot afford to lose ASR. We have a collapsing education system with extremists marching to destroy what is left of Jinnah’s Pakistan. Protecting spaces that spread light and advance the cause of redistribution, equity and tolerance need our support. Let Pakistani philanthropists and international partners come forward. There is no other alternative.
Raza Rumi is a development professional and a writer based in Lahore. He blogs at http://www.razarumi.com and edits Pak Tea House and Lahorenama e-zines